High gas prices tarnish SUV's appeal

Sales for large models fell 15 percent from a year ago.

Could the ultimate soccer-mom icon really be on its way out?

Reports of falling sales for the behemoths of the road - those Excursions, Suburbans, and Yukons that regularly take up two parking spots at the mall and incur the wrath of the Honda Civic drivers who trail in their wake - have fueled speculation that Americans may finally be shifting away from the biggest-is-best mentality that has long been their car-buying mantra.

Whether because of $2.50-a-gallon gas sticker shock or just shifting style trends, slightly smaller and more maneuverable seems to be the fashion. In April, sales on large SUVs fell 15 percent from the same period a year ago, according to Autodata Corp. Ford Expeditions were off 34 percent, and Hummer H2s and Chevy Suburbans were down 21 percent.

Arianna Huffington and other Hummer haters shouldn't celebrate yet. SUVs still account for 25 to 30 percent of all vehicles sold in the US. Even the sluggish sales on the supersized models may be more an indication of saturated markets or postponed buying rather than an actual loss of consumer interest.

But, at least for the moment, America seems to be entering an uncharacteristic period of downsizing.

"Excursion buyers are going to Expeditions. Expedition buyers are going to Explorers. Explorer buyers are going to Escapes," says Jim Hossack, a consultant at AutoPacific, a market research company in Tustin, Calif. The Escape - one of Ford's smallest and most "car-like" of SUVs - is up 49 percent.

Still, Mr. Hossack and others caution that the April sales slump has hardly been sustained long enough to constitute a trend, And despite the rising prices at the pump, gas efficiency is still not the way most car buyers make a decision.

"They want safety - in an SUV they sit up high, have better visibility, and feel more secure," he says. "And they want power and performance. People [are] spending $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000 for a vehicle, and they want to feel good in it."

In other words: Don't expect drivers to trade in their Dodge Durango for a Toyota Prius just yet.

For some consumers, though, gas prices have tarnished the SUV luster. Alfred Nelms, inventory manager at Nelms Champion Chevrolet Toyota in Culpepper, Va., says SUV sales are down 30 or 40 percent since the beginning of the year. In the past month, a few customers have traded in their big SUVs for smaller vehicles. "They're saying gas prices have eaten them up," he says.

Kenny Vorspan, a teacher in Cambridge, Mass., traded in his Ford Explorer for a Honda Accord because of high gas prices. "I always felt guilty driving it," he says, filling up with $2.19-a-gallon gas. "There's the energy conservation issue, the politics of the Middle East, and how unsafe they are."

Americans' choices of cars have always been as much about image and personality statement as they have been about practicality. Contrast Arnold Schwarzenegger - purchaser of the first US Hummer - with Prius drivers Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

From the rapper-cool Escalade to the counterculture Prius, cars make a statement. It may be why Lee Weinman, owner of Bert Weinman Ford in Chicago, is seeing so much interest from politicians in the new hybrid Escape debuting later this summer. "They want the SUV, but they don't want to lose the Sierra Club vote," he says. One politician even asked him how large the decal could be on the side to make it clear is wasn't a gas-guzzler.

In Hollywood, it has become all the rage for stars to show up at awards ceremonies in Priuses, even if many of them still have Land Rovers in the garage.

But if a few Americans see SUVs as the pariah of automobiles, icons of everything that's wrong with US energy and environmental policy, most still view them as a sign of success.

Even the shift toward smaller sizes may have more to do with style than gas prices. "The big SUVs were the big thing, but now smaller SUVs are hot," says Mike Flynn, director of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. "It still has the styling attributes of the SUV, but it drives more like a car."

Don't tell that to Nick Giannakakis. The Waukegan, Ill., restaurant owner, hip in a jaunty beret, is out shopping for a Hummer H2 to replace the Yukon that he rolled. He likes the way it looks, and he likes the way it drives, and says gas prices don't matter. "If you're going to buy something, you've got to buy it because you love it."

Woodfield Chevrolet Hummer in Shaumburg, Ill., where Mr. Giannakakis is shopping, has rows of shiny Suburbans, Tahoes, and H2s. The sales manager says all are still in high demand.

For gas prices to make a real change in the cars parked outside America's strip malls it will take higher prices for more sustained periods, most experts agree. Lines at the pumps in the 1970s, for instance, caused many Americans to become more fuel-conscious.

"People are postponing rather than eliminating or downsizing," says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing/Research in Bandon, Ore., which studies auto trends. Large SUV drivers, in particular, tend to have a high income. Neither group is likely to be swayed by fuel prices that are still cheaper per gallon than bottled water.

For those who have made the switch down, however, the pump prices are cause to gloat. Rush Hambleton, a small business owner in Newport, R.I., says he's become almost obsessive about calculating mileage. Last fall he finally sold his much-loved 1973 Land Rover, frustrated over his inability to even make it from Newport to Boston - around 75 miles - without stopping for gas.

In his new car, a little turbo diesel VW that gets 43 m.p.g., he once made it from Annapolis, Md., to Portland, Maine, on a single tank. "I calculate gas mileage every time I fill up," he says. "I get giddy."

Noel C. Paul contributed to this report.

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